A Fistful of Sky

by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Cover image

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: November 2002
Printing: June 2004
ISBN: 0-441-01177-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 353

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This book has a beautiful cover, a cover which did its job admirably as it's part of the reason why I bought it. Unfortunately, apart from capturing an emotion that might appear in a scene or two, it has very little to do with the book. (In particular, the figure on the cover looks nothing like the hero.) The back cover text is also accurate in every specific but turns out to be rather misleading. Thankfully the book one does get isn't bad, but I'm still wishing a bit for the book I was expecting.

Gypsum is the middle child of a family of spellcasters, from a long line of spellcasters. They live in a huge house in Los Angeles in a world that's only slightly different from our contemporary one, if different at all. Magic seems to be slightly more accepted, if still largely unbelievable; other than that, it's a straight contemporary setting.

In Gypsum's family, magic comes sometime during adolescence, with sickness and then awakening. Most of her family gets some form of wish power, the ability to change reality with their thoughts, although it takes widely varying forms and there are specific ways in which it can be used. The book opens with her at the age of twelve, introducing her four siblings, her domineering and often frightening mother, and her magicless but very practical father. Her family fights among themselves (rather nastily at times and aided by a hands-off policy set by her mother) but is also loyal; it's a good portrait of a family that's neither always comfortable nor truly broken. And all of the children are waiting for the day when they transition and gain their power.

Life seems to be going much as expected, until Gypsum's older and then her younger siblings go through their transitions and she doesn't. Facing the prospect of life without her own magic (it's rare, but it does happen), she finds a job, tries to make friends and a life for herself, and buries the resentment as deep as she can. Then, thinking she has the flu, Gypsum gets horribly ill, shortly after which strange things start happening. She came late to her power, it isn't at all what she expected, and it turns out to be quite difficult to deal with.

A Fistful of Sky feels like a young adult novel. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see it marketed as such. It breaks a standard rule by having the hero be in her twenties for the meat of the book, but the sensibilities are very young adult: her magical problems are far more often silly or childishly disturbing than truly terrifying, the pure coming-of-age nature of the plot is not even disguised, there is an entirely chaste romantic sub-plot, and Gypsum triumphs in the end through the power of loyalty, familial love, and understanding. It's not, however, a "hidden princess" sort of story. There is nothing of epic fantasy in this story, Gypsum is never in any danger of saving the world, and her powers are strong but more different than overwhelming. The most disturbing villain of the book is her mother, who while manipulative and abusive at times is also loving and trying her best in her own self-centered way. In short, it's a fluffy and non-offensive coming-of-age story that's rather unlikely to offend anyone except die-hard dieters (fat-acceptance shows up as a sub-plot).

This wasn't at all what I was expecting, but for feel-good fluff, it's pretty good. Hoffman's prose is readable and does a good job at setting the tone, all the members of the family get reasonable characterization (and in particular each of Gypsum's siblings gets a turn at being the one I liked the best), and the story moves right along. I had no trouble finishing the book in a couple of days. Plus, despite the often silly magic, the conclusion revolves around a rather disturbing magical creature who ends up being my favorite character next to Gypsum. The relationship between her and Gypsum is fun to watch build and comes to an excellent conclusion, one that openly acknowledges a surprising amount of subtext. Nicely done.

Still, it's an occasionally silly young adult novel, the sort of story that attracts labels like "heart-warming." It's well-done if you take it on its own terms, but if you're looking for something powerful, deep, or complex, I'd save this for another mood. If you do read it, though, hang in there through the particularly surrealistic bits right after Gypsum gets her powers. It does get much better.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-12-20

Last modified and spun 2015-04-13